HAZEL GREEN, Ky. — As he claimed the first spot in a mile-long line for free food in the Appalachian foothills, Danny Blair vividly recalled receiving the letter announcing that his pandemic-era benefit to help buy groceries was about to be slashed.
Kentucky lawmakers had voted to end the state’s health emergency last spring, which by default cut food stamp benefits created to help vulnerable Americans like Blair weather the worst of Covid-19. Instead of $200 a month, he would get just $30. He crumpled up the letter and threw it on the floor of his camper.
“I thought, ‘Wow, the government is trying to kill us now,’” said Blair, 63, who survives on his Social Security disability check and lives in a mobile home with his wife after their house burned down five years ago. “They are going to starve us out.”
Over the past year, 18 states, including Kentucky, ended official states of emergency and rescinded the Covid food benefit. For the other 32 states as well as the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam, Congress mandated in December that the extra help sunset in March.
The pullback of federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits [formerly called food stamps] is part of a broader effort by the government to unwind some of the billions of dollars spent to help protect jobs or boost incomes for Americans during the pandemic. Over the past 18 months, the federal government has halted enhanced unemployment benefits and ended pandemic-era child tax credits. It is in the process of rolling back an adjustment to Medicaid that boosted enrollment, putting millions of Americans at risk of losing coverage.
Collectively, the return to pre-pandemic policies could pose a setback to President Biden’s efforts to slash poverty while building a healthier and more sustainable middle class.
“We saw positive benefits from this and less hardship, including for families with children,” said Dottie Rosenbaum, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who noted there was a steep decline in childhood poverty rates in 2021. “We can expect that to reverse now.”
For those waiting in line for food in Kentucky, the last year has been jarring. Some said they can now only afford to eat once a day. Others limit expensive items like meat for specific family members like growing teenage boys. All described feeling hunger.
‘Could not be coming at a worse time’
Authorized by Congress in the early months of the Covid crisis, the emergency SNAP allotments allowed 41 million recipients to receive an increase in food stamp benefits, helping families at a time when businesses were shuttering, schools closed and uncertainty abounded.
The extra cash for groceries varied based on considerations such as income level and amount of aid received before the pandemic hit, but all were entitled to the maximum allowance for their particular situation. For many families, that translated to significantly fuller grocery carts. Even recipients receiving the largest monthly benefit available before the pandemic were granted an extra $95 a month.
Many senior citizens on food stamps in Kentucky saw their monthly food benefit drop from $281 to $22 last year after the state emergency ended in May, according to Feeding Kentucky, a network of local food banks.
With Kentucky serving as a warning beacon, social services agencies and charities across the country are now preparing for a summer of misery as food prices continue to soar due to inflation.
“We are bracing, and our agencies, member food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens are not prepared for what is about to hit them,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, which includes about 3,600 charities. “This reduction, and end of the public health emergency, could not be coming at a worse time.”
In Kentucky, Republican lawmakers in the state House and Senate argued in March 2022 that the immediate impacts of the pandemic had waned and that it was time for a return to normal. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear vetoed the measured to end Kentucky’s Covid emergency, saying it would effectively “take food off the table” for more than a half-million people. But Republicans, who hold a majority in both chambers, voted to override his opposition.
The sponsor of the resolution, Sen. Donald Douglas of Nicholasville, did not return a request for comment, but contended during debates that it was not practical to live “under a constant state of emergency.”
“Let’s ask yourself, should SNAP benefits be a way of life?” he asked. “Now we know it is for some. Should it be a way of life for adults?”
A sudden surge in need
In a state that has been hit particularly hard by the collapse of the coal industry, entrenched poverty and hunger have been generational problems that state and federal officials have struggled for decades to address.
But during the pandemic, state officials and charities say the influx in federal assistance for the poor — including expanded unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, child tax credits and an increase to maximum SNAP benefit allotments — helped lift scores of families out of hardship.
Federal data shows about two-thirds of SNAP recipients are families with children. More than 41 percent are working households. The gross monthly income to qualify in 2022 was at or below $2,379 for a three-person family.
In Fayette County, Kentucky’s second-most populous, the number of individuals and families seeking assistance from food pantries declined during the height of the pandemic even as unemployment soared, said Michael J. Halligan, chief executive of God’s Pantry Foodbank, which operates in 50 counties in Central and Eastern Kentucky.
But since Kentucky halted its emergency SNAP benefits in May, Halligan said food pantries in the state have seen about a 20 percent increase in need. God’s Pantry Foodbank now distributes or serves the equivalent of 100,000 meals per day, Halligan said.
“The message I have shared with colleagues all across the country is here’s what we experienced when the emergency health declarations were rescinded,” Halligan said. “You should expect the same thing. You will see it within 30 to 60 days after those benefits sunset.”
|Nicky Stacy, left, runs the Hazel Green Food Project.|
Nicky Stacy initially launched the Hazel Green Food Project in February 2021 in response to a series of devastating flash floods in Eastern Kentucky.
A town of just a few hundred residents, Hazel Green was a hub of commerce and tourism in the early 20th century as people flocked to bottle mineral water from natural springs believed to have therapeutic benefits. Today, Hazel Green and the surrounding parts of Wolfe County — where 30 percent of residents live in poverty — mostly consists of agricultural land and weather-worn farmhouses.
After Kentucky’s emergency food benefits expired, Stacy said interest in the Hazel Green Food Project’s bimonthly giveaways soared as residents from Wolfe County and surrounding communities realized they had less money to buy food.
“They never even gave these people any warning,” Stacy said. “It was just like, ‘Damn, it’s gone.’”
Memories of ice cream
At the food giveaway on Feb. 24, the mile-long line of vehicles snaked down Kentucky Route 205, a stretch of highway that also includes a Dollar Store, Uncle Sam’s Gun & Pawn Shop and Bites and Bargains homestyle restaurant.
Inside many of the vehicles, motorists blamed the reduction in SNAP benefits for their desperation. Further down the line from the Blairs, Elizabeth Conley sat coughing in a rusted truck where the gas pedal was wrapped in duct tape and wires dangled from the dashboard. She said her monthly SNAP benefit was cut from $398 to $84 last year. Conley, 45, also receives $914 in Social Security disability benefits because she suffers from lupus and fibromyalgia.
The mother of three — a 21-year-old son in college and two teenagers at home — recounted how quickly she spent her February SNAP benefits.
“I went to the store and I come [home] with like five items — milk, cereal, eggs and some meat that the kids will eat,” Conley said.
“I have teenage boys,” Conley added, her voice rising with exasperation. “People don’t understand boys eat quite a bit, especially teenage boys, and I am not going to let the kids starve.”
Three days after Conley went to the grocery store, the food was gone.
“That is when we knew we needed to come here,” said Conley, who was joined by her boyfriend, who has two teenage boys and saw his monthly SNAP benefits reduced from $396 to $228 last year. “We just need food, and we don’t have any.”
A few cars away, Courtney and Beatty Stone parked in the line around 10 a.m. and settled in for a three-hour wait.
Courtney, 68, and Beatty, 64, were both hooked up to mobile oxygen tanks and said their monthly food stamp benefit dropped last year from $350 to $140.
As they puffed on cigarettes and their oxygen machines chirped with each breath, the former tobacco farmers recalled how the increased benefits during the pandemic allowed them to occasionally buy some comfort food.
“When we had $350, we could buy some ice cream sometimes. And some pop and chips,” said Courtney Stone, referring to a slang for soda.
|Betty and Courtney Stone arrived at 10 and waited three hours.|
Now, the couple said they struggle to afford even their monthly supply of what they consider to be staple foods.
“By the time you buy your mayonnaise, ketchup, salt and pepper and eggs, oh the [price of] eggs, they went crazy … we might have only $5 left on our SNAP card,” Beatty Stone said.
As the couple passed the time by listening to a Christian radio station, Courtney Stone said he feels betrayed by the government. The couple — each of whom also collect $680 a month in Social Security benefits — said they are most upset about not being able to go to church as often because they cannot afford the price of gas.
“How can you give something and then take it away?” he asked. “They didn’t lower taxes. They didn’t lower the price of everything else.”
But as he took another hit of his cigarette, Courtney said he was slowly coming to accept his predicament.
“The thing is, you were born to die,” he said.
Ryan Quarles, a Republican who serves as Kentucky’s agriculture commissioner, also hopes Congress weighs in on ways to alleviate hardship, although he added he’s not ready to endorse a return to pandemic-era benefit amounts.
“Food insecurity in Kentucky has reached catastrophic levels,” said Quarles, a candidate for the GOP nomination for governor. “There is no excuse for a state that produces so much food to have any Kentuckian go to bed hungry.”
But outside the Hazel Green Volunteer Fire Station last week, the line for free food kept growing. The number of people in line easily eclipsed the total population of Hazel Green before the pantry opened, reflecting how the donation program has become a source of food for people throughout western Kentucky.
As 74-year-old Martha Miller and her daughter, Mary, waited in line, they said they’ve started using centuries old Appalachian Mountain cooking tips to save on food costs.
If a recipe calls for eggs, use shortening instead. A can of cream and two cups of water can make the equivalent of 1 percent milk. And save bacon grease to use later as shortening.
“I don’t buy fresh vegetables anymore. I can’t afford them,” Martha Miller said. “I don’t buy eggs anymore. I can’t afford them.”
But for some people in line, even food conservation is not enough to keep them fed all month.
About an hour after the 1 p.m. food giveaway began, Henry Tolsen pulled his 30-year-old pickup truck to the back of the line. He settled in for an anxious three-hour wait, worrying whether any food would be left for him.
Tolsen, a tobacco and corn farmer who went bankrupt after a flood took out his crops in 1997, saw his monthly food stamp benefit reduced last year from $240 to $30 a month.
He also receives $1,000 a month in Social Security benefits to help pay his bills and keep gas in his truck. But Tolsen, 58, who is divorced and lives alone with his pet chiweenie, said he’s starting to eat just one meal a day.
“Yesterday, I only ate a bowl of cereal and a can of peaches,” said Tolsen, as he turned off his truck to save gas until the line started moving again. “I would like to be able to eat bacon and eggs, biscuits and gravy for breakfast, a decent lunch, and a homegrown supper like I used to.”
Although the Hazel Green Food Project hands out food until they run out, there is usually little to offer those at the back of the line, which was not lost on Tolsen.
“If they run out, I go home empty-handed,” Tolsen said. “Let’s just pray and thank the good Lord I will get my disability check.”
At about 5 p.m., Tolsen reached the front of the line. Volunteers handed him three venison steaks, two heads of cabbage and three bags each of potatoes, carrots and fried pork rinds.
Although Tolsen had food again, he drove away questioning whether his government really cared about him.
“I know everyone was happy to get that stimulus, but they didn’t realize there is going to be a payday, and we are paying for it now,” he said. “How did the government give us anything when they let inflation get so high we can’t live and we are going to starve out?”